International Mobile Phones : Staying In Touch Around The World

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27/6/2008 – International Mobile Phones : Staying In Touch Around The World

One of the most common logistical problems international travelers face is staying in touch while on the road.

For some travelers their mobile phones are not “Groupe Spécial Mobile,” more commonly known as “GSM” so the mobile phone will not work internationally. Other traveler find they have as GSM phone, but it is only a dual band phone and it does not have the proper frequencies for international use. Many travelers simply do not want to incur outrageous international roaming fees.

There are simple ways to stay in touch while also lowering the expense of using your mobile phone overseas. I have tried a variety of options when traveling will hopefully clear up this somewhat complex travel issue for those of you traveling internationally.

There are some basics you’ll need to know before we dive in. The first piece of information you’ll need to know is if your phone is GSM, TDMA or CDMA.

–GSM is truly the global standard. “The World” primarily operates on GSM frequencies 900mhz and 1800mhz. “North America” largely operates on 850mhz and 1900mhz. Central-and-South America operate on a mix of all four frequencies.

For those of you who use TDMA and CDMA you’ll most likely need to pick up a GSM phone for international use. TDMA and CDMA are really limited to the US and Canada, with some CDMA service in use in South Korea. If you have Bell Mobility PCS (Canada), Telus PCS (Canada), Sprint (USA), Verizon (USA), KT Freetel (South Korea), LG Telecom (South Korea), SK Telecom (South Korea) you most likely have a CDMA phone.

–If you have a GSM phone, or are looking into a GSM phone, you’ll need a “Subscriber Identity Module” card, which is more commonly referred to simply as a “SIM Card.” Your service, your phone numbers, even your stored phone numbers, live on the SIM Card, not on your phone. A SIM allows you to swap phones as often as you’d like and take your phone number with you. You can also travel and pick up SIM cards as you go and pick up local phone numbers (but we’ll get to that later).

–Going to Japan? Well that is a whole other topic that can take up it’s own entry…..they have GSM SIMs, but most handsets and SIMs from outside Japan are not compatible with Japan, however mobile phones from Japan have no problem working outside of Japan.

Now that I have covered the basics, lets get into whether you need a GSM phone or not.

If you plan to travel to North America; you are in North America and plan to go anywhere else; you think you venture into Central or South America, then you’ll want to purchase a “quad band” GSM mobile phone.

The most cost effective way to use your mobile phone is to simply purchase an unlocked GSM mobile phone if you do not already own one. I picked up a used an abused unlocked GSM quad-band phone on eBay not to long ago for $15. This came with a battery and international wall charger. I didn’t need anything fancy, just unlocked and quad-band.

Once you have an unlocked GSM mobile phone you are free to purchase pre-paid mobile SIM cards as you travel. By purchasing a ‘local’ SIM card you have a local phone number and are paying a significantly better rate for your usage than roaming internationally on your home carriers plan. You can buy a SIM card, no contract required, in nearly any airport or train station, and you can get some great deals online as well! Run out of minutes? Buy a new SIM or top-up to refill the card.

The downside to buying your SIM locally? You lose your phone number. If you must keep your phone number look around at what mobile phone providers offer the best international roaming rates. Rates may not be consistent from country to country so make sure you ask your mobile phone provider for a complete list. If you plan to use data this can incur significant costs which you need to factor in.

As of today I have found AT&T has the most competitive international voice roaming fees for US based customers, while T-Mobile has the most competitive Blackberry Mail fees. Verizon “global phone” users will find their data rates favourable, while their voice rates are well above both AT&T and T-Mobile (US).

Remember that as soon as you land in a foreign country and turn on your mobile phone your SIM has been registered with that country’s provider. This means that even if you do not answer your phone you may be charged a connect fee for all missed calls while you are on the road internationally. Since your SIM has registered on a foreign provider, all calls coming to you are automatically being routed to that provider from your ‘home’ provider.

To avoid this problem I travel with a T-Mobile (US) Blackberry and remove the SIM from my AT&T mobile phone. As soon as I land I place a foreign SIM in my unlocked AT&T phone so I have my Blackberry for mail while using a local SIM for all voice calls. In Hong Kong you can pick up 880 minutes for HK$88 (US$11.25), in Paris you can find a SIM with 500 minutes for €20 (US$31.50) , both example SIMs will save you a lot of money if you choose a local SIM rather than your ‘home’ SIM.

Want a dedicated international mobile phone with a phone number that will follow you around the world? Check out Mobal International Cell Phones ( While Mobal may not have the best rates in some countries, overall, you know exactly what your fees are for incoming/outgoing calls before you travel internationally. Having a known expense makes the choice to use a mobile phone easier. Mobal sells a variety of GSM World Phones (be aware than the US$49 promo phone works globally, except on US/Canada frequencies).

Not interested in buying a phone or buying a SIM? You can always rent a phone. Companies such as AllCell Worldwide Wireless Rentals ( can set you up with what you need worldwide. AllCell has an extensive line of phones for both international and domestic use. Going off the beaten path? AllCell can set you up with a Satellite Phone as well. Companies such as AllCell offer an added benefit of being able to get an international rate plane with Free Incoming Calls. If you plan on accepting more calls than you’ll be making you can save a lot of money with this option.

………going to Japan? Rent a phone, or just buy one when you show up.

Well that’s it, the basics of staying in touch while on the road around the world.

Happy Flying!

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